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Ask HN: Just finished coding my new startup; need ideas for getting traction
34 points by Eddk on May 2, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 62 comments

The concept is simple. Millions of cars on the road everyday, many traveling long distances. Millions of package delivery shipments everyday. Match these two groups and everyone wins.

Value proposition: Instead of traveling with an empty trunk, you could offset cost of gas by carrying a small package for someone at maybe 50% discount from what they'll have to pay UPS,USPS, or FEDEX.

Major competitor: www.uship.com

My other project: www.colabopad.com

Any ideas on how I can go about getting traction for something like this? I have built what I think is a bare minimum of functionality (staying true to lean-startup idea), no pretty UI stuff.

follow me: http://twitter.com/twitlooter

Do you understand why your competitors work? They've spent decades building up brands like "When you abso-fricking-lutely have to have it there by the day after tomorrow, or it's your job." There are movies about their core value proposition and brand messaging.

Now after you understand how they work, do you understand which of their customers don't need to pay for that? Can you identify a group of folks currently shipping through FedEx who can switch to "eventual, best effort, may not actually arrive" delivery? An addressable group? A big addressable group?

If not, scrap the idea and do something else.

P.S. I think you are missing the "last quarter mile" problem, too, although it won't be a quarter mile for your implementation. I assume that in any given day there are a lot of packages going from somewhere in LA to somewhere in New York, but not one single package going from "somewhere in LA" to "somewhere in New York". They all have to go to a specific address in New York -- which means you need to find someone going to that exact address.

Spot on.

The problem space being addressed is more complex than what it looks like. Customer perception of reliability is everything. Shipping companies have made their offerings as reliable as banks. There's numerous safeguards in place to protect the customer in case of an accident and you have professionals handling your valuable items.

Perhaps an ebay-like system of feedback will help eliminate some of the wariness that accompanies a total stranger delivering your package, but even then the event of loss, theft, and damage will be much higher than it is with the existing shipping companies. That alone would make it difficult to get this idea off the ground.

It's safe, secure and reliable.

You will seriously need to expand on these points to get customers. Looking at the idea blind, I can't see how it can be any of these things. No pretty UI stuff will be needed until it's a viable business, and addressing these three concerns strikes me as paramount.


I can't imagine why I'd want to give a package to a person I've never met who has no obligation to deliver the package to it's destination. If I didn't care too much about the item being shipped... I wouldn't be shipping it.

If you could link this idea up with a social network you may be able to increase the trust level by searching within your social network, perhaps by extending that network by one or two degrees of separation. If everyone that you know and all of their friends entered their vacation plans into a database so that you could find someone that you have a chance of trusting who could deliver your package, you may be able to make it work. On the other hand, now people have a way of finding out who's going to be on vacation and when, that could be bad.

One way I intend to ensure trust is to have shippers use either Paypal or Amazon payments to accept shipment payments... By proxy, a shipper's identity will not be anonymous anymore since those services do require bank account information which is a thorough form of ID.

I suppose the payment is done after the package arrives...

The canonical way to do this (which I will call the "hitman protocol") is a percentage up front, and the remainder upon completion.

Given that the sums here are probably small, this probably doesn't fix the situation.

Then the shipper could get ripped off.

Most of these concerns are the same as with any site that deals in blind transactions (ebay, used things on amazon, paypal in general), but these sites only require you to risk your time upfront where as in the case of this site the customer is risking something they already own with the hope of future payment. Essentially its like requiring people on ebay to send items before they receive payment.

The most basic way I can think of to deal with this imbalance is to have the shipper make a deposit up front to "insure" the item being ships. Upon arrival the shipper gets their deposit plus payment. There is probably a more elegant way to frame this so that the shipper does not feel like they are risking so much.

Can't you just turn it into a crime not to deliver?

This was my reaction when I looked at airbnb. They seem to enjoy success. Any insight into why that trust model works? What makes it better than this?

The buyer isn't entrusting any property to the seller in the Airbnb situation. Putting down money through a buyer friendly system is one thing.. giving a PS3 to a basically unknown entity on top of that is something else.

Sorry, but I still don't get it. Surely giving person X access to your home carries more risk than just giving person X your PS3. Is your point that you have less legal recourse or is there something more practical I am missing?

Ah, but in that case the /seller/ is the only one with property on the line. Sellers in most markets are used to taking on risk (eBay and PayPal's policies are oriented around this pattern, for example) whereas buyers are not.

Thanks, that's what I was missing.

I just finished frying my steak and now I need some ideas on how to build a restaurant around it.

I'm sorry but you are approaching this from the wrong end. A project like yours is 99% a business effort and 1% technical. I am not even sure the market for something like this exists. There are convenience issues, there are trust issues, there could be regulation issues (google for a recent car sharing project and how it got shut down because it went against taxi licensing bylaws). You are effectively asking for help building a business plan, while all you have is a very basic undeveloped idea.

I agree with what you're saying, but would argue that if you're opening a restaurant, the steak should come first. :) In this case though, you're absolutely right.

Before you get carried away with how to build the site, I think you need to think a bit about the economics of this business.

1. What would you charge someone for postage? It would have to be less than UPS etc., otherwise there's no point not using them.

2. What would a driver earn for carrying a package? Some amount of money not greater than the postage charge (otherwise you'll go broke).

3. For what amount of money would a driver think it is worthwhile to pick up this package, or several packages, and deliver them to where they need to go? Surely more than just a few dollars.

4. What are the extra costs of your business, such as insurance?

I don't know the answer to any of these questions, particularly postage (I don't live in the US, so I don't know what the cost of sending a parcel is there). But you might want to think about it.

Shipping can be quite expensive through the usual channels (UPS, USPS,FEDEX). If you have ever tried to ship a used textbook then you know what I am talking about. The application allows the carrier (ie person carrying the package) to specify a rate(per pound per mile). Obviously the intent is that such a service should be significantly cheaper than what the existing shipping companies charge otherwise no one should use it.

Perhaps. But shipping a used textbook via USPS Media Mail usually costs <$5. That's fairly inexpensive.

My point isn't that you can't undercut the shipping companies. It's that if you do so, no-one will offer to deliver things for you, because they won't earn very much.

I mean, they might. It depends on many factors. I just thought you should think about it from that end too.

Example: If you were driving from point a in city A to point b in city B, how much money would you want to first drive to point a' to pick up a parcel and to deliver it to point b' before you reach your destination. $5? $10? Just something to think about.

Not to rain on your parade, but I'm having a hard to understanding how you'll undercut shipping companies. Their prices are so low because they rely on economies of scale (large trucks and a very sophisticated supply chain) and complex algorithms that determine the optimal route for delivery.

First, there's the problem of paying the couriers. I can't speak for others, but I would never carry a package in my car for $5 -- it's not worth the hassle. I might carry 10 at once for $50, but even that payout is very low for my time... not to mention that the likelihood that my route intersects with 10 different packages being shipped on the same day is extremely low. Drivers working for shipping companies make a relatively low wage, and they ship lots of packages. You'd have to pay couriers per-package, and at a much higher marginal rate than shipping companies pay. That means additional overhead, which means your prices will go up.

Then you'll have extremely high overhead with respect to fraud, insurance, etc. UPS/FedEx packages are handled by professional drivers, and I'm certain that their insurance costs are still astronomical. This means more overhead, which again means higher prices still. In fact, I'm willing to bet that even if you could find an insurance agency willing to underwrite your operation, the cost to insure each package would be higher than the overall cost UPS/FedEx charges their customers to ship.

Finally, you're going to have a hard time convincing customers that your service is reliable and safe. That means even for the customers you will get, your cost per acquisition will be much higher than UPS/FedEx. That won't hurt you too much right now, but it will be a major barrier to scaling -- and scaling is the only way you're going to compete with the shipping companies.

Maybe you can compete on some other way than price?

Some random ideas to salvage your idea a tad (which seems to be very difficult to make work given it's difficulties):

* Start with a niche like used books and perhaps partner with a book swapping site (e.g. bookmooch or bookcrossing or something) to get the initial tests done on something people don't mind losing. Other second hand material would be good, too.

* I think you'd also do much better with such a service if you treat your site more like a craigslist for "package hitchhiking" and reverse the process. I.e. travelers post where they're going on their next road trip and they say they're willing to take a few odd things. So you'd get a lot of random trip listings perhaps all on your front page until there's enough to break them down. People browse the site when they have something to ship (especially second hand stuff, etc) and if they see someone going the way they need, they make a bid/offer to the person going that way.

* On the security angle you might look into the "friend of a friend" and "church group" organization like http://www.goloco.org does. Targeting widespread organizations or friend networks may make this more palatable to people worried about trust.

* Posting some examples of "what people shipped" on the page, with a constant stream would help people feel more comfortable.

* I assume there will be ebay like ratings and reviews, etc?

* Overall, I'm not sure this "disrupter" is going to work unless you can plug it into the thriving secondhand market as an extremely thrifty for low-value items. Positioning yourself initially would do you a lot of good.

* Finally and not most importantly, the website (unless owned by craigslist) will need a much more polished design to make people thing this is a "real deal" enough for them to try it out. I don't think that alone will help you, but your traction issue isn't going to be helped by your current design (usability and visually).

Best of luck-- regarding the other comments, sometimes the naysayers on Hacker News are wildly wrong and harsher than they used to be, but they often have very good points that will let you adapt your vision and save it. Take all the advice with a grain of salt. You're going to learn the best from your users once they start giving you feedback, so testing your idea and site is far more important than our responses.

Edit: To that end, give something like feedbackarmy.com a try a few times and see what random people think about the idea and see what percentage you could get to say they'd give it a shot.

Nice website. I think, unfortunately, the concept may have some fatal flaws...

1. If you need to ship a package across the country, don't you think it would be much faster to go with a major carrier because they can ship your stuff by air?

2. Would people really trust just any person with a car to deliver stuff that might be important? What if it got stolen by the driver? What would you do then to make the situation right?

3. Would you provide tracking information for packages that are shipped? What about day estimations on delivery?

4. How would it be profitable for the driver? Usually the major carriers are able to use economies of scale to spread out the fixed costs over many packages. If your driver had 3 packages to deliver and their delivery addresses were in different parts of town, wouldn't your driver lose money on gas and the time it would take him to drive around town to deliver the packages?

1. Perhaps something similar could be done with people travelling on airports? (Ok, it's very dangerous to just carry random stuff, but perhaps would work for books or things like that)

I've run into that very model before. There are courier services that effectively pay folks to carry things on to planes. They then drop it off on the other side at the courier desk and go on their merry way. I did that a bunch of years ago (mid 90's).

Given the last mile problem which others have mentioned, could you not try a hybrid solution where people drop packages at post/courier offices in the destination towns? They can then be delivered by regular post or courier but at the local rate. So, basically you are turning passenger cars into long haul delivery vans for the postal service.

I don't know if this is economically feasible, but something to think about anyway.

Thank you very much... very sound idea.

One of the big challenges in shipping is distribution. Even though someone may be going from place x to place y, they will have to go 'the last mile' in both the x and y locations to complete the transaction. Anything like this that adds complexity also adds both time and money.

Obviously you can't have people who fly do this as the air carriers prevent bringing packages which you did not pack.

yeah... I made provision for carriers (people carrying packages) to specify by how much they are willing to deviate from their planned route. That is a key aspect in the search algorithm i developed. Say you are willing to deviate 5 miles then any package that is within 5 miles (both pickup and delivery points) of your planned route is a match. There are other issue of last mile that will be addressed only if the site grows, mainly how do you deal with receivers who aren't available to pickup their package at time of delivery, considering that carrier is traveling?

You should pick a specific niche market (students, small businesses that need to ship stuff, ...) and market to them, try to get actual real customers. If it doesn't work, ask them why not, and/or try a different niche market.

I'd ship many empty boxes at the beginning, to test how many of those arrive the destination.

Dare I say, I think you are attempting to solve a problem that doesn't exist.

As a customer, what do I gain? As I see it, I take a significant risk in shipping with an unknown entity. The cost of shipping within the US is already fairly low, so why would I take the risk. You can't go international, even into Canada or Mexico, because I sure wouldn't take a package from an unknown person across the border for them.

You've created an opportunity for a driver with an empty truck, but you haven't (I don't think) really solved the question of why a customer would use the product. You say 50% off the cost is the benefit. But what is the average price of a product that can be moved in the manner you are describing?

If you are talking about getting door-to-door service, that is going to add up for the driver as well.

UPS, USPS, FEDEX, DHL, etc. all operate on a hub and spoke type system which is efficient with a large number of packages.

For local direct shipping, there are often lots of local options which may be cheaper than the big names. If you could link up the drivers across regional locations and offer them something so they can compete with UPS, etc, then you might be on to something.

An interesting annecdote, my great-grandfather got into the trucking business exactly as you are describing. He had a truck and was driving from town-to-town in Southern Ontario looking for work. People started recognizing him and asked him to take small packages for him on his travels. Then one day somebody asked him if he could deliver a Piano, and he clued in that this was a good thing. But that was in the early 1910's (I think), so there weren't a lot of shipping options.

Checkout http://www.shiply.com too.

I'd solve the initial chicken and egg by finding a few shipping companies and promising to find them business for free. Get some packages posted on the site. Get them delivered. Get some shipping companies some ratings. Rinse and repeat. Start charging.

sounds like a good idea!!

The question is, if a transaction does go sour who foots the replacement bill, if it is irreplaceable what happens then?

Seems like there would be an accountability problem, in a big shipping company the drive would lose there job taking anything, to much risk for them, here if someone takes something what would be the repercussions?

Your target customers are probably going to be young people, college students, and the like. Businesses and older people may be more worried about the security of their package. You might try making a YouTube or Vimeo video about your service. Make it sound cool and efficient. It might get you a few customers.

Or drug dealers looking for mules.

Yes, the risk that you're transporting drugs alone might be enough to kill the service. A UPS driver has a plausible story if he's transporting drugs -- if you're pulled over with a package full of meth from this service your story is not much better than "it isn't mine, I'm just holding it for a friend"

very funny:) I have considered all those things, I think they are mostly knee-jerk reactions. You could pretty much make similar arguments against any web-initiated transaction, but as has been demonstrated by the incredible success of e-commerce I think concerns about safety are mostly just that. I don't see why a drug dealer would want to risk so much by trying to use such a service, on so many levels it will make no sense.

Why doesn't it make sense? Drug dealers spend megabucks moving drugs. A largely anonymous network of couriers with no idea what they're carrying would be ideal. They wouldn't move a ton at once, they would spread it out over many smaller shipments. Since the oversight is zero and the cost is so low it would be worth whatever extra hassle it might add. Imagine an undercover fedex that didn't ask questions. I'm sure you'd be the go-to network for a while until you got shut down.

I wonder if you could successfully apply an onion routing protocol to the distribution of physical objects, with an economy built-in around risk tolerance. Mundane shipping could then be subsidized by the more expensive contraband.

Distance yourself by connecting client & courier directly with a distributed P2P app (like Tor), and sell the authenticity and financial escrow services. Keep no knowledge or record of the actual transactions.

see also: Mitch Hedberg

I would not have written all that code without testing out your hypothesis first or at least in parallel with your products iterative construction.

Use your friends and family or your "extended network" first and see how / if people use it, if they like it, what is missing, etc. Sorry if this comes off as negative, it's not meant to - I can't tell you how many times I've written a web-service that does X, only to find out it needs to be implemented differently to do Y or realize the bigger challenge is in reaching my target audience or even finding who that audience is.

Customer discover and development is just, if not more, important than product development imho.

Also, take a long, hard, and honest look at your proposed business model and make sure it makes sense (using your friends, family, and extended network can help provide some data around this).

Scott Adams (Dilbert) wrote a blog post about how to match people who would like to travel together, instead of packages, a couple of years ago. But the problems, namely trust, are essentially the same.


His idea to connect people with GPS is something you could use. His screening idea's are something you could also incorporate.

To make this an succes I would create a social networking site so that everyone who wants to participate can be publicly hold accountable. If all my personal data is known to you I would think twice before I'd steal a package. A scoring system would bring up the most reliable people to do business with.

The comments in this thread are interesting, and I think that all the reasons brought up as to why it won't work are accurate.

That said, I think there's a slight chance of value in making this a really premium service. Don't try to make it less expensive than USPS, make it lots more expensive than FedEx.

Find the people who like to drive. Pitch it as having an adventure. There's an old movie, Bed of Roses, where Christian Slater is a former lawyer turned flower delivery guy, because he likes seeing people's faces when they open the door and see the bouquet. You're not delivering a package, you're meeting a stranger and taking a package on a secret mission! Don't make it anonymous, have people meet in coffee shops right before they drive off to feel each other out. It's a daytrip outside of people's routine lives.

The people buying the service are people who hire traditional couriers, like bike couriers in cities, but for longer distances, when it has to be hand-delivered and you can call the guy on his cell phone and such. It's a premium service.

And then there's even a tier above that. A really expensive alibi service, where you pay someone to drive somewhere far away and have something mailed from a traditional Post Office there, to get the far-away postmark.

Good luck!

Maybe your key difference could be ship people instead of stuff. Kind of like an AirBNB but replacing Taxi's and busses instead of replacing hotels.

Aside from the concerns I share with others of your deliveries being safe, secure, and reliable, here's how I think you should focus your product. I see no possible way that your product could initially address the needs of someone needing to ship something outside of their local city/town. If I'm travelling San Francisco to Manhattan, and your site has matched me up with someone who needs a package shipped from San Fran to the Bronx/Queens/Brooklyn etc, you would have to offer me a pretty high price to deliver that package.

I have two suggestions: First, start with deliveries that need to be made within a certain territory. I could maybe see something like this working in a big city like NYC since there are millions of people moving around and your chances of finding fairly precise matches for delivery routes is much higher.

Second, I think you would need some sort of drop box system where shippers check in their packages and deliverers check-out the package, deliver the package to the closest drop-box to the destination, and the customers pick up the package from there. I know this second point adds a huge layer of start-up cost to something like this, but it's the only way I could see it working. When the delivery person checks out a package, their account would have to be liable for damage deposit, lost/stolen package/etc and when they deliver successfully, their account would be credited whatever fee you pay them. If you had a network of redbox-like machines in public places for drop-off and pick-up then maybe something like this works.

I know what I've just described is probably a completely different idea, but when people are in their cars going somewhere, they've budgeted almost an exact amount of time they need to get where they're going and delivering a package to an unknown destination that may only be a little bit out of the way could completely throw a wrench in that time budgeting.

I think this is a viable idea.

I would focus on niche areas, perhaps where you would waive all fees (and the shipper would also) to get some users. What comes to mind are parents visiting college kids may be willing to bring care packages for other parents at the same college, and the same for packages going to military bases.

There may be other niches: fanciers of a particular dog or parrot breed may be willing to help others transport those animals, and those animals may be impossible to ship; among the heirloom plant type people, fruit tree sapplings might be good; people who are into a certain type of old car or motorcycle are also often community oriented enough to help haul something if they are going the same direction.

I would disregard the skepticism in the comments. I have found start-up types to be sort of passively hostile to co-operative type setups that are not crassly commercial enough for them -- there's nothing wrong with that.

I would not make the "safe, secure and reliable" guarantee, because you can't really do it, unless you offer package insurance (which might be a good add on). I would just say "select shippers with a reliability rating that suits you" or something like that.

You should also take the 1 - 2 - 3 steps on the left hand side, for people with packages, and replicate them on the right hand side, as in "1: you are traveling to a distant city 2: you find someone who needs a package sent there . . . . "

Also, I would suggest that for an unrated people the package must be inspected and sealed in the presence of the hauler, it will keep out some of the drug shipper types.

In your about page or further explanations, you might make reference to the way old settlers used to pass mail and packages to whomever was traveling in the right direction (in thinly settled places that is still sometimes done).

Hate to be another naysayer, but...

You're probably also incurring a lot of liability just by contracting the individual shipper to take an action on your behalf. Say your person is dropping a package that's just off their route to wherever they're going. They pull off the freeway, and BAM get hit by a semi. Congratulations, you're going to be the recipient of a huge lawsuit.

Easy to dismiss that as, "Well how often does that happen?" Accidents happen, on average, one per every thousand driven hours. So if you've got a thousand en route today that are taking more than an hour, you get to have this problem once a day, on average (v weak extrapolation, I know).

Some things can't be done as a lean startup. Some things cost major money before their first day (e.g. airlines, long-haul data services, auto manufacturing). You managed to pick a non-lean industry.

I'm also wondering about liability, though not quite in that way.

First, what If something happens to the package that I'm carrying? I'm not going to carry something if I'm going to be liable if I break it, that risk won't be worth the gain.

Second, are the people carrying stuff for you going to be classified as employees? I don't know much about tax stuff but if you run the risk of the IRS classifying all these people as your employees, you might be running into a lot of administrative and liability problems.

You've got to target a different kind of customer than those players. How about if you toss out "safe secure and reliable"? You were apparently inspired by packet switching networks, so why not follow their lead: don't guarantee delivery. If you can get your prices low enough you can certainly find whole classes of customers that could accept an 80% delivery rate. Junk mailers might love you, for a start. And lots of goods are so cheap these days that some lossage would be acceptable to save a lot on shipping.

But the bigger point is to identify a particular sort of customer who you can serve.

Junk mailers might love you

Please don't cater to junk mailers.

I would partner with shipping companies. Not Fedex or USPS but the thousands of other companies shipping goods in large trucks. There must be extra space in these trucks and it can be monetized.

Sometimes, you need to focus on the bueinsuess idea, as noted below, along with the coding. Also, the coding isn't everything. Coding is a small part, but also is user interface design, from scaling good images, picking easy-to-read fonts, and spelling. People automatically distrust services that have a misspelled logout button for instance. Coding is a small part to a process. Building traction is a final goal, of which coding is a small part. Coding isn't everything for a web startup.

I work for a large geographically diverse company and we often carry company stuff between offices on our trips to save on the cost of couriers. Perhaps you could whitelabel this service and hook into tripit.com or something similar and demonstrate to a client that with your system you could save $X,000 of money in courier fees by having your staff carry stuff internationally or even just interstate.

you can think of it as a market place for existing logistics providers who auction off leftover slots.. so if one can afford to send stuff without too much of a hurry, shipping costs would be greatly reduced, win , win for logistics provider, shipper as well. Clearance businesses would love it :)

Think you definitely need to combine it it with some social / hobby sites for it to have half a chance of being used. It can't compete as a courier company.

Start ups are actually businesses that are starting up, not software applications or websites. The way to test this is find 1 customer.

Why don't you test it to see if it works first?

1. Post an ad on craigslist for personal delivery tasks and find people who would want you to deliver their package.

2. Post an ad on rideshare and see if someone can deliver your package.

Validate your minimum viable product first before you invest more energy in this.

What differentiates you from your competitions? What makes it safe to ship with you? How are you going to get the consumers and the producers?

These are the fundamental questions that I would ask you and addressing them might help you in getting more ideas in achieving traction.

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